Not long after American inner cities started to empty of street life in the 1960s and 70s, government officials went for the benches. Benches encourage people to sit still. And sitting still is a quasi-crime in urban America commonly known as “loitering.” You may recognize its related anti-social behaviors: standing still, milling about and strolling a little too slowly.
It’s hard to remember how we got here, to criminalizing a leisurely pursuit that’s embraced on most European streets. But the cycle went something like this: Residents moved out of cities and stopped using their public spaces and streets. The only people still walking them were deemed riffraff: the homeless, jobless and, officials feared, gang members and prostitutes.
And so cities took away the benches (or made them un-sittable) and put up signs warning of anti-loitering fines. We went to great lengths to discourage the wrong people from hanging around, but this of course discouraged everyone else as well.
“It’s almost like we created a word that celebrates the fact that we’ve forgotten how to design cities,” says Dan Burden, the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. “When we can create a place that’s so void of human life because people don’t want to go there, then this natural surveillance that occurs when people feel comfortable going there and watching over it themselves disappears.”
The problem is inherent in the word itself: loitering. The exact same activity – casual strolling, sitting, gathering in public – should be an active goal of cities known by another name: lingering.
Burden travels around North America preaching the distinction between these two terms (and Canadian communities get it much more than American ones do, he says). We should be celebrating street life, not discouraging it. And this shift in mindset requires a fundamental shift in vocabulary, too.
“We’ve gotten so bad,” Burden says, “there are towns I go to that I can’t find a single place that I feel comfortable lingering in because it just feels like I’m doing something where everybody will say ‘why is that guy sitting there?’”
And Burden looks suspiciously like he might be an aging hippie.
Anti-loitering ordinances (designed with aging hippies, gang members and bums in mind) have been created by communities over the years with varying degrees of dubious legality. They often appear to provide cover to police for not-so-subtle racial profiling. And they’ve been written with vague prohibitions against such shady activity as “remaining in any one place with no apparent purpose.” Ordinances, though, are just one tactic. Removing street furniture – or putting in only awful examples of it – can work just as well.
Lingering, on the other hand, is both a means to an end and a desirable end in itself. People who linger create vibrant public places and welcoming streetscapes. They also increase the safety of an area, with more eyes on the street. And leisurely foot traffic can lead to more street commerce, more connected communities, and spontaneous exchanges.
‘The great thoughts, the great ideas that sprout really come form the street, where people are seeing things, where they bump into other people,’ Burden says. ‘Einstein used to say that his best ideas came on his walk home from the university every day.’
Look at the most famous scenes, Burden adds, in celebrated photos, paintings and books. They often involve people in public places… lingering.”